Sri Lanka suffered two heavy defeats in their recent Test series against South Africa
Credit: AFP /PHILL MAGAKOE
“I suspect it is going to turn a bit, in fact I know it will,” Sri Lanka’s head coach Mickey Arthur said last week, betraying what England can expect on their tour of Sri Lanka.
Twenty-six months ago, England completed a 3-0 series victory in Sri Lanka. Powered by aggressive use of the sweep shot and the brilliance of their spin trio, it was one of England’s most impressive displays in the past decade. For a Sri Lankan side used to feasting on England’s susceptibility to spin – England had only won one of their previous eight Tests there – it was a jarring result.
While England suffer from an unrelenting schedule, Sri Lanka in Test cricket have the opposite problem: too little cricket. Since England’s last tour, Sri Lanka have played just two Tests at home – sharing a 1-1 draw with New Zealand in 2019, after losing the second Test by an innings. Such a light fixture list prevents players amassing experience or Sri Lanka being able to develop a pool of proven Test cricketers: of the 11 who played in their last Test in South Africa at the start of the year, six have played 10 or fewer Tests. England alone will play 17 in 2021. England’s problems – of needing to manage players’ Test schedules – are ones that Sri Lanka would love to have.
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The way in which an injury-ravaged side were pummelled in South Africa – losing by an innings and 45 runs and then by 10 wickets – has created a sense that England can expect an encore of their last trip. That would be presumptuous.
In their 38 years as a Test nation, such maulings away from home have not been uncommon for Sri Lanka. But they have seldom had much bearing on Sri Lanka’s displays at home. Touring Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, Sri Lanka have only won eight Tests and lost 45. But at home to the same quartet, Sri Lanka have won 22 Tests and lost 21. Perhaps for no Test nation has home advantage been so crucial.
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This home advantage, as Arthur suggested, is again likely to entail pitches that offer prodigious turn. That will mean off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, who took 22 wickets in the 2018 series, to the fore. Wanindu Hasaranga, a 23-year-old allrounder who bowls leg spin, is viewed as Sri Lankan cricket’s next great talent, and scored a half-century on Test debut in Sri Lanka. Lasith Embuldeniya is likely to compete a spin trio combining off-spin, leg spin and left-arm orthodox spin. Even if the attack lacks a totem of the ilk of Muttiah Muralitharan or Rangana Herath – and the identity of the supporting pace bowlers, depleted by the tour to South Africa, is unclear – England’s batsmen can expect a challenge that will test every iota of their temperaments and techniques in subcontinental conditions.
In home conditions, Sri Lanka also have the foundations of a batting line-up able to make sufficient runs. The return of Angelo Mathews from injury will be invaluable. Matthews needs 19 runs to become the fifth Sri Lankan to 6,000 Test runs. The identity of the quartet above him – Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva – attests to Matthews’s worth over a 12-year Test career; his Test average, 45.3, is better than the last two names.
After missing the second Test in South Africa with injury, the stylish Dinesh Chandimal – who also boasts a Test average over 40 – should also return. Kusal Mendis ended the tour of South Africa with three consecutive ducks but is a player capable of match-seizing brilliance. If skipper Dimuth Karunaratne, who has a fine record in Galle, can thrive as opener that will protect Sri Lanka’s middle order from the new ball. But while a full-strength batting line-up has class and experience in home conditions, there is undeniable flakiness too. That much was betrayed by the presence of Lahiru Thirimanne – who averages 22.7 in his 36 Tests – at number three in the last Test in South Africa.
Since becoming a Test nation, Sri Lanka have traditionally been a side in which a few giants lift the side around them. For all that they lack such giants now, adding up to a less formidable side, a series victory for a side not at full strength would still represent a fine achievement for England.